story and photos by Bakery Boy
Hanging little loaves of bread on the Christmas tree seems quite natural to us bakers, I suppose. As conversation pieces, they’re hard to beat. As housewarming presents at holiday parties, or simple gifts for neighbors and co-workers, or stocking-stuffers for family members, they’re fun to make and pretty much guaranteed to bring a positive reaction.
I decorate our tree with some miniature bread ornaments I made 25 years ago while working in a French bakery in Seattle. Some are four-inch-long versions of French loaves, scissor-snipped into alternating pointy “grains” to resemble ripe wheat tassels. Others are shaped into 1½-inch-diameter wreaths just the right size to hold small candles in the middle and sit upright on tree branches. I wrap the straight loaves in red ribbon that doubles as a hanging loop at the top end, and I use paper-and-wire twist ties from bread bags (how appropriate) to strap the round wreaths onto Christmas tree branches.
Over the years I’ve gradually lost some of my original bread ornaments to breakage while getting them into and out of storage or on and off the tree. So this year I decided to restock my collection and make extras to give as gifts.
Reactions to receiving the little favors usually go something like this: First a look of genuine surprise, followed by some variation of the phrase, “Are they really made of bread?” Next comes an appreciative smile of thanks. And finally the urge to hang them right away in a place where they’ll be seen.
What more could a devoted baker-turned-ornament-maker want?
HERE’S HOW Start with a basic French dough of just flour, water, salt, and yeast—nothing like butter, oil, sugar, or eggs that will attract critters while in storage. I make a large enough batch to bake a regular loaf or two to eat right away and still have plenty left for making a few dozen ornaments.
When it has risen (that’s more of an Easter reference, I know, but bear with me), divide the dough into pieces about the size of ping-pong balls and roll them into four-inch “fingers” or mini-baguettes. Let them rest a few minutes, either on a cutting board to be moved gently later, or on cookie sheets lined with parchment paper and ready for the oven.
Holding scissors at a 45-degree angle, snip each piece half a dozen or so times at equally spaced points, cutting about ¾ths of the way through to leave a solid line on bottom for a sturdy “backbone” effect. Set each little point off slightly to the side, alternating left-right-left-right. The results will resemble the rows of grain in harvest-ripe wheat tassels.
For wreath-style ornaments, form some of the bread “fingers” into circles about 1½-inches in diameter, leaving a center hole about the size of a small candle. Snip the dough at an angle 45-degrees to the center of the circle with the points aiming out.
Let the shaped dough relax and rise another 20 minutes on parchment paper-lined cookie sheets, then bake at 350o for about 10-15 minutes or until they start to turn golden brown. TIP: Under-baked, they’ll tend to sag and bend; over-baked, they’ll be brittle and more likely to break.
Let the ornaments cool and dry for a day or two. Eat any that don’t look so well, but be careful not to eat the entire project or you’ll have to start all over. This is why I bake a regular loaf at the same time, so I can eat it while I’m making ornaments.
If you really want your bread ornaments to last a long time, spray them with a thin coat of clear lacquer or varnish. Allow them to dry thoroughly before applying decorative ribbon. This also provides the kind of shine you would get with an egg-washed surface. Even without this extra treatment though, they’ll be good for a few years before they start to shrivel and crack.
Wrap each straight ornament with a thin, brightly colored ribbon to form a crisscrossing pattern like calf straps on gladiator-style sandals. I use red ribbon, but any color that doesn’t too closely match the bread itself will do. Run the ribbon into the channels made by the scissor cuts, which will keep it from slipping.
Tie the ribbon once snugly at the top of the ornament to hold the crisscrosses in place, and then again a couple of inches away to form a loop for hanging the piece. Square knots will suffice at both junctures. Or you could get fancy by tying bows for the second knot. Trim away any excess ribbon.
For each wreath ornament, gently push the bottom end of a small candle snugly into the center hole and tie ribbon into a simple bow on the candle itself. Use paper-and-wire twist ties, recycled from store-bought bread bags and laced through the center hole, to strap the ornaments to Christmas tree branches with the candles aimed up. NOTE: These candles are not intended for lighting, just for looking good.
When you take down your decorations, wrap each bread ornament in tissue paper and store them in a small shoebox. For many years I’ve had mine in the same box my firstborn’s first pair of sneakers came in!
GOT MORE IDEAS? Feel free to share your bread ornament ideas with fellow bakers by leaving a comment below or by sending an email to the Bakery Boy Blog at firstname.lastname@example.org.